Like many other things in life, losing weight is easier said than done. While people can read books and books on how to do it, the constant dedication it takes seems to be too high a price for many. This would indicate that the problem is not a lack of information, but a lack of motivation, or more likely...a combination of the two – which, coupled with the easy access to calorie dense foods and the sedentary lifestyle of modern humans, can make losing weight seem to be a next to impossible task.
Many commercial entities – publishing companies, supplement companies, and too many others to name – take advantage of this situation. They tell you that they have dieting secrets that make weight loss easy and comfortable. However, even the most potent dieting drugs, and the best thought-out diets, are still uncomfortable (or, in the case of drugs, often unsafe). This isn't to say that there are ways to make it easier and more comfortable. But under any circumstances, it takes an extraordinary amount of willpower.
With that said, if you follow a few simple rules, you can lose fat. The rules are easy to learn, but following them is the hard part. This article offers the basics in terms of diet, exercise, and supplementation. Note that this is geared more towards those who are at average weight or slightly overweight and looking to get leaner, and much of the information in this article may not apply as well to the overweight and obese. However, unless otherwise specified, it applies to bodybuilders, athletes, and people just generally looking to lose fat alike.
1a. Count calories
This is what will make or break you. The majority of popular diets make the primary issue which foods you eat, and not how much. If and when these diets work, it is because they make you have a consistent reduction in calories some other way – for example, only meals that only have a certain number of calories each are listed as approved meals. Many think that losing weight is as simple as "eating right" or "watching what you eat," but it is far more complex – although this is a good cornerstone of weight maintenance, your body does not automatically lose weight even on a healthy diet. The fact of the matter is, you can eat only pizza and donuts and lose weight, so long as you are only eating 1000 calories a day (not to say that this is a good idea - see the following sections). On the other hand, you can live on a 4500 calorie diet of tuna and lettuce and conceivably gain weight. In other words, if you aren't following this rule, you will have a very difficult time losing weight or fat – especially since people almost always estimate their caloric intake to be much lower than it actually is, unless they are actually keeping records (even then, it tends to be underestimated).
The misconception that which foods are consumed should be the number one focus of weight loss seems to be promoted by the mass media, one example being their focus on the "low carb" versus "low fat" debate. In scientific circles, this debate never really existed – there was never strong evidence for low fat diets to begin with. But with any type of diet you follow, it's not going to work unless it's low calorie. Eating fat (or carbs) does not make you fat per se, eating too many calories does. In any case, it would be more appropriate to avoid certain types of fat, as some types will send nutrient signals that reduce body fat. The issues concerning which types and amounts of macronutrients are ideal are complex, and although they shouldn't be completely ignored, they shouldn't obscure the fact that reducing total caloric intake is the number one priority.
Another misconception is that if you reduce your calories by a certain number daily, you will accordingly lose weight. For example, if you are on a 3000 calorie diet, and drop to 2500, you will steadily lose a pound of fat per week, or adjust to a new bodyfat set point. This is not how it works – the body rapidly adjusts metabolism to maintain weight. You will only lose weight consistently once you place a severe enough demand on the body (called a "caloric deficit"), and until then it will generally stay where it is at.
A common question is, "What formula should I use to determine how many calories I should eat daily to lose weight?" There is no formula, for many reasons. Obviously, no two individuals are alike, but that isn't a reason you can't make a few generalizations. The real reason is, such a formula must include activity level, what foods you are eating, body type, how long you have been dieting and at how many calories, and many other factors. Almost every person finds that if they count calories, and reduce them weekly, there will be a certain point at which they consistently lose weight (commonly in the 1500-2000 range for men, lower for women). But even then, after a while, weight loss will halt. This is due to a variety of factors, including reduced body weight (thus less caloric expenditure) and reduced metabolism. This is the point at which you reduce calories further. Most will find that once a certain bodyfat point is reached, no amount of calories seems to get over the "starvation response," and weight loss is near-impossible – we will get into that more below.
1b. Follow a cyclic diet
There are tons of these out there – CKD, carb cycling, any diet that employs refeeds, even diets with "cheat meals allowed" – with any of these, you will be better off than if you eat the same amount of calories day in and day out. To explain it simply, the reason is that once you've been eating less than what your body sees as required to maintain body weight for a while, the positive hormonal response to food becomes quite amplified – levels of leptin, thyroid, sex hormones, and many other hormones will shoot up, leading to an increased metabolic rate and sense of well-being. The key is similar to that described above with caloric reduction – find a specific cyclic diet that causes a consistent reduction in bodyweight. If you are starving yourself, but eating too much (or more appropriately, the problem is usually "too often" or "too long") during your refeeds, high carb days, cheat meals, or whatever you call it, you are defeating the purpose entirely. And it is important to understand that although these techniques can help immensely, they are still not going to make dieting easy.
Regarding "cheat meals," my suggestion is that if you are going to do it anyway, try to make it beneficial, while at the same time not trying to make it perfect. In my opinion, if you have to eat a certain food every now and then, but that food does not fall into the parameters of your refeed, then do it – just only do it on certain occasions. The most important note to make is that one meal will rarely cause the sort of hormonal response we are looking for – you need a few hours of high calorie feeding at the very least (I say six hours minimum), and high glycemic carbohydrates are optimal.
1c. Eat clean
As I stated above, you can still lose weight on a diet of junk food – but you will also lose a lot of lean weight, not be getting the proper nutrients, and feel lethargic and depressed day in and day out. Also, your appetite will be through the roof, compared to if you were eating healthier foods. So, what constitutes a "clean" food? Pretty much any protein ("protein," not "source of protein"), omega-3 fatty acids (make sure to differentiate this from "EFAs," which includes omega-6 fatty acids, which you don't need to go out of your way to consume), other healthy fats, and high quality carbs (you cannot determine this by GI alone, there are many things that determine a "high quality carb," this being only one of them). Good foods include protein powders, low fat dairy, fish, lean meats, many nuts and seeds, fruits and vegetables, and non-refined or minimally refined grains. These foods are healthy and full of various nutrients. As for food that isn't "clean," this should be obvious – anything high in sugar, maltodextrin, or highly refined grains, food high in saturated and/or trans fats (while PUFAs other than omega-3's should be restricted as well), and even sometimes food that doesn't contain a lot of calories, but is devoid of nutritional substance – diet soda, for example (see the next section for more on this). If calories are still being counted, eating some of these foods every now and then is ok, but you should be aware that they are contributing very little to your health and could be hurting your dieting efforts.
Eating clean also means eating a lot of protein. While the protein content of most non-vegetarian diets is considered "adequate" by the standards of health organizations, it is by no means optimal, especially for those who are weight training. Athletes and those who are exercising regularly should eat at least .6-.8 g of protein per pound of body weight daily, while weight trainers seeking to increase or retain muscle mass should eat at least 1 g/lb. Many times protein recommendations are based on the amount required to achieve positive nitrogen balance (in other words, lean tissue is not being lost), but this is not the best measure of the optimal amount. The amount needed if you wish to increase protein synthesis is higher, and extra amino acids have many benefits other than just participation in protein synthesis. If you are a vegetarian, you should be consuming large amounts of milk protein, egg protein, and soy protein (in powder forms if necessary), and if you are a vegan, large amounts of soy protein and maybe some additional amino acid supplements. Although phrases such as "fat burning protein" commonly found in ads are absurd (because eating nothing will burn more fat than eating protein, but more muscle will also be lost), if an individual wants to lose more fat and less lean mass, and calories are being controlled for, a high protein diet is definitely optimal.
1d. Eat satiating foods
People often think eating clean and avoiding calorie-dense foods are one and the same, but they are definitely not. As covered above, even diet soda could be called a junk food. But more importantly, there are many calorie-dense foods that are good for you – natural peanut butter and healthy oils, to name a few. While I still recommend these foods while dieting to lose weight, they should not be made a cornerstone, a mistake made by many. Yes, they are healthy, but they are not very satiating (one of the exact reasons they are used by those trying to gain weight). The satiating effect of various foods is an issue that cannot be ignored. This is why you should make sure to eat foods high in fiber and/or low in caloric density on a diet. These include minimally processed whole grains (a category which decidedly does not include whole wheat flour) and a lot of fruits and vegetables. Even just getting your recommended intake of fruits and vegetables, something which most people don't do, will help immensely. In addition to being more satiating than most other foods, they contain many valuable nutrients that many dieters do not get enough of.
The crossover point here is "junk food" which is also satiating for the calorie content – diet soda, sugar free pudding, and other sugar-free/low-fat foods with very little nutritional value. The same reasoning that applies to the healthy, calorie-dense foods applies here. While these can be very useful on a diet (in fact I would recommend them to those struggling with appetite, at least if their diet is not long-term), intake should still not be excessive, for reasons primarily relating to your health. One good thing to do is find ways to complement these with healthier foods – for example, add whey protein isolate in with sugar-free pudding, or fruit in with sugar-free Jello.
2a. Weight train
Weight training comes in first because it is the aspect of exercise while dieting that is the most commonly neglected. Weight training is beneficial on a fat loss program in both men and women for a number of reasons. The most commonly given reason is that increased lean mass equates to increased metabolic rate, and weight training increases lean mass. In some magazine articles, you may read statements such as "each pound of muscle burns 50 calories per day, while each pound of fat burns 2 calories per day." However, these figures are greatly exaggerated from what has actually been established, which is that a pound of muscle burns 5-10 calories per day, and it is probably on the lower end. If a pound of muscle actually burned 50 calories per day, most bodybuilders with large amounts of muscle mass could easily lose weight on 3000 calorie diets. Another aspect of the equation that is often ignored is that one cannot expect to put on significant amounts of lean mass if they are dieting (although weight training does help to retain lean mass), although those who are not experienced weight trainers may gain a fair amount if they are lucky.
Again, we are seeing a situation where the advice is good but the reasoning behind it is usually rooted mostly in myth. The primary reason why weight training is beneficial for fat loss is the acute increase in metabolic rate that a weight training session induces. Weight training causes a significant increase in basal metabolic rate, which primarily occurs in the 24-48 hours after a session (estimates commonly fall in the 100-300 calorie per day range). Furthermore, the increased caloric expenditure comes primarily from sources other than lean mass. In contrast, a bout of endurance exercise will burn a lot of calories, but also cause a significant reduction in lean mass (this can be countered by ingesting large amounts of calories, but that is obviously contradictory to the goal of weight loss).
A third reason to resistance train while losing weight is simple aesthetics. The majority find people (both men and women) much more attractive when they are not just skin and bones. Many women are afraid that lifting weights will make them look "bulky," but this is extremely unlikely, as they just do not have the same anabolic hormone levels men naturally do. Even female bodybuilders who use steroids can never even come close to male bodybuilders. Women should not be using light weights to "tone up," as this defeats the purpose described above, as it is simply not going to cause the necessary stress response to trigger a significant increase in BMR.
2b. Do cardiovascular exercise
While many people focus on cardiovascular exercise while avoiding weight training, there are others who do the opposite. Among certain groups of people, there are many myths about how cardiovascular exercise is bad for you, detrimental to someone trying to increase or maintain muscle mass, etc. These arguments usually reference data from studies on endurance athletes. Doing cardiovascular exercise does not mean running an ultramarathon. In fact, cardiovascular exercise of pretty much any reasonable intensity or duration is of benefit. While it is more likely that lean mass will be sacrified than with weight training, there is still a preferential loss of fat over muscle with physical activity. Additionally, epidemiological studies indicate that cardiovascular exercise is inversely correlated with the development of visceral adipose tissue (VAT) independently of body fat level. VAT is associated with a higher incidence of health problems, as well as an unsightly midsection.
The question then becomes which type of cardiovascular exercise is ideal for fat burning. As covered above, it is obviously not long-term endurance exercise, because although this causes a significant increase in caloric expenditure, a large amount comes from lean mass. There is another piece of misleading advice that you will commonly hear in this respect. Many will say that low intensity cardio (walking or light jogging) is best for weight loss because this is the "fat burning range" – a greater proportion of the calories burned comes from fat as opposed to alternative fuel sources such as glycogen. This may appear reasonable at first, but it really ignores the bigger picture. It is important to look at both calories burned during and after exercise, as exercise at a high enough intensity will lead to a longer-lasting increase in metabolic rate after exercise. Second, utilization of glycogen as opposed to fat during exercise is not necessarily a bad thing, as restoring the glycogen will still require calories. Also, if you look at it from the perspective of burning the most calories possible in the shortest period of time, the higher intensity, the better.
The ideal type of cardio for fat loss is short, high-intensity workouts, and this is supported by clinical studies. This causes the most calories to be burned in a given period of time and causes a greater increase in metabolic rate for a longer period of time after exercise. Additionally, the longer a cardio session is (especially after one hour), the more likely it is that loss of lean mass will occur, especially on a low calorie diet. This isn't to say that longer lasting, lower intensity cardiovascular exercise is bad, just that it is not the optimal way to lose fat. It is still good for your health, if kept within reason – definitely not something to avoid.
2c. Don't overtrain
Overtraining is a misunderstood phenomenon, and there are different types of overtraining. Overtraining is a syndrome that is most common in endurance athletes. When bodybuilders use the term overtraining, they often mean "exercising with a greater frequency/intensity/duration than is optimal for muscle growth." It may also refer to training too often for the CNS to recover enough. While on a diet, the risk of all of these forms of overtraining is much greater. The primary things we want to avoid are muscle loss and too much CNS fatigue. This can be accomplished in a few ways.
First, do not start a new exercise routine, especially a new weightlifting one (although under some circumstances, such as someone who hasn't been weight training and is starting a weight loss plan, this is unavoidable) – this primarily applies if the new routine involves a greater workload or new exercises. I even think it is a good idea in some cases to not try to increase weights at all once you have started dieting. However, these rules depend on training experience, how well the diet and supplementation is being planned, and individual response.
Second, take one day completely off from training (both lifting and cardio) a week. Some light cardio or recreational exercise is fine, but nothing that will tax your system. Keep in mind that high intensity cardio sessions will drain you of energy as well.
Third, don't drop your calories lower than you need to to lose weight consistently (1-2 lbs. a week), as this will increase the chances of overtraining and losing muscle.
Fourth, listen to and know your body. If strength is decreasing, exercise frequency may be too great. You are going to have to learn what is optimal for you mostly by trial and error, as there are no set in stone rules. Some may be able to easily break all the rules listed above, while others will have to take them even further. If strength is decreasing, resist the urge to lift weights with bad form just to be using the same weights; you will be better off lowering them. Likewise, if you just can't find the motivation to do your cardio or weight training session, you may be training too often, and a few days off may help. On the other hand this shouldn't be used as an excuse, you have to be honest with yourself.
It is important to know that, for most dieters not using steroids and/or other drugs, some muscle loss is likely on a diet no matter how hard you try to prevent it. Many, especially beginners, want to lose body fat and increase muscle mass at the same time. It is important for you to get this idea out of your head, because although the magazines make it look commonplace, it is not, especially among those who have not been blessed with exceptional genetics. This is always something that one may want to attempt, but it shouldn't even be considered an option until one has quite a bit of experience and knowledge, or is planning on spending a large sum of money on supplements and drugs.
3a. Get extra nutrients
During a low calorie diet is when you are most vulnerable to nutrient depletion, especially if you do not eat a large enough variety of foods. For this reason, extra nutrients should be supplemented with. However, supplements should not be relied upon to achieve adequate nutritional intake. You should still eat a nutritionally adequate diet to the best of your ability.
I recommend a good multivitamin/multimineral, a B vitamin complex, extra vitamins C and E, and some calcium, magnesium, and possibly potassium. A low dose zinc supplement may also be a good idea. Premenopausal women should make sure that their multi contains iron. One of the more important nutrients to supplement with on a diet is calcium. First, extra calcium may be needed when you are on a high protein diet. Also, calcium helps with fat loss through multiple mechanisms. An all-in-one calcium, magnesium, and vitamin D supplement is a good idea.
3b. If possible, use stimulants
There are a set of substances commonly referred to as "thermogenics," but I prefer the term stimulants, as thermogenic is a pretty broad category. Specifically, the stimulants I am referring to include caffeine, ephedrine, yohimbine, synephrine, nicotine, and others. Although it is common, I do not think it is a good idea to exceed simultaneous use of two, and definitely not three stimulants, as the risk of drug interactions increases with each substance added. My recommendation is to use caffeine along with one of the others. In my opinion, this group of substances represents the best in weight loss supplements/OTC options. Although there are many other options, they are usually less potent, or have less clinical data backing them up.
Of course, safety and side effects are the primary concerns with these substances. There seem to be two groups of people, those that won't use the substances because they consider them extremely dangerous and those that use them recklessly. Within normal parameters, these substances are very safe. This is especially true if my recommendations above are followed – using caffeine along with one other, instead of taking five at once thinking that they will all independently cause fat loss. In reality, very complex interactions occur, and you could be radically increasing side effects and/or decreasing effectiveness. Another way to ensure that the substance is being used safely is to stay in a safe dosage range.
In terms of side effects, many people complain about the "jitters," anxiety, or discomfort. For this reason they search everywhere for alternatives. In many cases it may indeed be best for these individuals to avoid these substances. However, people who think the side effects are too severe are also commonly those who are looking for a free ride. As I covered above, if you want to lose weight, you are going to have to accept discomfort. If one wants to reach their goal badly enough, they shouldn't be too concerned with some uncomfortable side effects. There is a segment of the population that is quite sensitive to stimulants (with a greater percentage of them being women), and this cannot be discounted, but one should ponder whether they fall under this category or the category of people who just want everything to be easier than it really is. Another important consideration is that with regular use, side effects significantly diminish.
With that said, stimulant use is definitely not necessary for weight loss (see #4 in this section). Also, in the previously mentioned sensitive individuals, as well as those with health problems, and those who are taking prescription drugs with which these substances may interact negatively, stimulants should be avoided.
3c. Supplement for both good health and fat loss
There are a group of substances which are pretty much side effect free, cause mild to moderate fat loss, and have a number of other positive benefits. You will not see the same amount of fat loss from these supplements as you will with stimulants or illegal drugs, but they are much healthier. Some of the most important are acetyl-L-carnitine (or L-carnitine) in combination with choline or lecithin, green tea, and omega oils. With all of these supplements, there is strong evidence for a reduction in the risk of major diseases, and some evidence for antidepressant and/or anxiety-reducing effects (both of which may be of significant benefit on a diet, which can be quite stressful). For example, epidemiologic studies suggest that green tea and fish oil reduce the risk of various cancers and death from cardiovascular disease. Clinical trials suggest that fish oil and L-carnitine have many cardiovascular benefits. There is strong evidence that both acetyl-L-carnitine and fish oil improve cognitive function in the elderly, and they may also improve learning, memory, and concentration in younger people. Green tea also has neuroprotective effects. Epidemiological studies indicate that high dietary fish oil may reduce the incidence of depression, clinical trials in the elderly indicate that L-carnitine decreases depression in that segment of the population, and theanine, an amino acid found in high quantities in green tea, has anxiety-reducing properties. This is only a sample of the benefits these supplements have to offer.
In contrast to stimulants, there is no reason to not take these supplements for most people (other than perhaps money), as they all have excellent side effect profiles. The scientific evidence for these substances in terms of fat loss is weaker than that for some stimulants, not because the studies have had negative results, but because not enough have been conducted. All of them have been found to lead to significant fat loss in multiple animal studies, and mechanisms of action are known. The existing studies in humans are promising, but the analysis is far from rigorous. So, the reason to take these supplements is not because they are well-proven fat loss aids (which, other than pharmaceuticals, are few and far between), but because they are well-established to improve health and more likely than not will also improve your fat loss efforts.
In this article, we have discussed diet, training, and supplementation strategies for fat loss. Some of the most important concepts covered include the importance of counting calories, the right foods to eat, which supplements to focus on first, the importance of weight training and high intensity cardio, and most importantly, the intrinsic difficulty of any attempt at fat loss. Using these tools, you should be ready to lose some fat and improve both your health and appearance.